The 1980s have a nostalgia around bright colours, big fashion statements and free-spirited fun. While South Africa’s complicated history of Apartheid diffuses the pop culture of the day, this is where we find Kanarie, a film about an army conscript searching for his true identity. Set in 1984, we track the journey and sexual awakening of a small town boy, who is conscripted to serve two years of military training in the “Canaries” – the South African Defence Force concert choir.
Kanarie is a coming-of-age musical war drama from writer-director Christiaan Olwagen, inspired by co-writer and composer, Charl-Johan Lingenfelder. Olwagen has delivered yet another impressive and spirited zeitgeist film after Johnny is Nie Dood Nie. Armed with a great sense of style, he knows how to leverage contrasts and create brave new worlds. Olwagen is constantly pushing the limits, adding flair and an independent spirit to Kanarie. While the directorial choices are bold… they all add up… in a similar burst of joy and melancholy you could describe as a blend of Full Metal Jacket and Sing Street.
Much like Full Metal Jacket, the film comes with the standard tough-as-nails drill sergeant, humiliation, bullying, singling out and breaking of the spirit that one associates with machismo and military training. Having Kanarie focus on the choir section does lighten things as the recruits are ultimately under the authority of Reverends rather than battle-scarred colonels. Then, it has a similar ebb-and-flow to Sing Street, where a boy struggles through a rough religious school, searches for love and nurtures his passion for ’80s music.
Olwagen’s assembled a strong ensemble of actors, almost as if Kanarie was written with them in mind. Schalk Bezuidenhout is an inspired choice as the lead, almost unrecognisable as Johan, and does a remarkable job of tightrope-balancing through the character’s seasons. He’s supported by Hannes Otto and Germandt Geldenhuys, with a fully committed Otto playing his doting best friend, Wolfgang, and Geldenhuys providing much of the comic relief with his charming and effervescent turn as stocky songbird, Ludolf. Bristling with strong performances, Kanarie is anchored by more seasoned actors, Gerard Rudolf and Jaques Bessenger, as we become locked into Johan’s anxious and secretive world.
Focusing on single shot scenes, essentially a series of precise short plays, you don’t really get a chance to blink as the camera cleverly reframes scenes and performances become as real as live-action theatre. Keeping things tight, the detailed production design and wardrobe adds to the ’80s nostalgia and musical appeal with props and tributes. In this world of mandatory military training, racist regimes and homophobia, we relive many classic pop tunes from the ’80s with a special interest in Culture Club and Boy George.
Kanarie is an original, compelling, provocative and powerful coming-of-age, fish-out-of-water and coming out drama. Dexterous shot composition, strong performances, good casting, timely themes, bold direction and effective resource management pull together to create a film that is uniquely South African and universal in nature. Bold, contentious in terms of its sexual politics within the framework of the Church and Afrikaans male identity, this film is sure to get some mixed reactions. While somewhat throttled by its budget, Kanarie serves as a brilliant showcase for Olwagen, Bezuidenhout and the abundance of talent brimming within our local industry.
The bottom line: Bold